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#975: Agreeing on Engagement Terminology

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Thursday, January 29, 2009
Updated: Friday, January 30, 2009
I use terms of art in business that I would assume are unambiguous. However, there are many times I have to go back and explain to client staff what I mean about a particular term. To be fair, the "local" use of a term is sometimes not clear to me because it has taken on a particular connotation at a client's site. What's the best way to minimize this confusion?

As our experience grows, we naturally assume that the common to us, at least) usage of a word is universally understood. However, one side effect of diversity - geographic, generational, ethnic, gender, etc., is that what once might have been clear is no longer so. Also, in business (and possibly more so in consulting) words are used like they belong to a priesthood and for which only some people are eligible to use the, Finally, business words are sometimes used that are more complex and nuanced than their plain English equivalent calls for. Whether it is of our own doing or just the forces of culture and nature, if we are causing any confusion with (or are confused by) a client, we need to remedy it.

Each of us has a group of terms we use whose meaning we have honed over years of practice. About some we feel strongly and about others we are ambivalent. Our goal is to create a common understanding with those we share use of these words. Our job as consultants is to bring concepts and, where needed, words to express the concepts, processes and culture we recommend to the client. This is where a project glossary may help. A glossary includes all those terms you use and your client uses that relate to the diagnosis, analysis, findings and implementation aspects of the engagement. Agreement on what thses terms mean will go a long way to minimizing confusion - both yours and the client's.

Tip: Raise this idea with your client sponsor at the kickoff meeting. Talk about whether this is something that is likely to be useful. If this is a current client, probably not. If it is a client in a new industry or with a culture that is unfamiliar to you or is inexperienced with consulting processes, probably so. Be on the lookout (a task for which both you and client staff are charges) for instances where meaning in unclear and confusing. Add the term and (after discussion) the consensus meaning to the accessible glossary.

Tags:  client relations  communication  consulting process  learning 

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